The nights are long and the ground is cold. Glittering eyes stare out from dark crevices, and you may just come face to face with a duplicate who embodies your greatest flaw, because we’re in the shadow realm now! These places are dark and spooky, but, perhaps more importantly, they are alien. They’re also our topic for this week. Whether it’s the literal afterlife or a particularly twisted part of the real world, we talk about caves, abysses, and how orcs can grow food when the sun is blotted out.


Generously transcribed by Viviana. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.

[Opening Music]

Wes: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host, Wes. And with me today is-

Oren: Oren.

Wes: And-

Chris: Chris.

Wes: All right, get out your torches and turn the lights on full blast because those shadows are just waiting for the right opportunity to pounce and take you into their world. We must remain vigilant and shine our bright lights to keep them at bay! But also, doesn’t the brightest light cast the darkest shadow? Hmm, what’s going on here?

Chris and Oren: [Laughs]

Oren: Does it? I guess.

Wes: I don’t know. I remember that quote from the opening scene in the first Kingdom Hearts about the brightest light casting the darkest shadow. And I was like, “Does that make sense?”

Oren: Oh, man. I’m trying to figure out how do you measure how dark a shadow is?

Chris: What is a dark shadow? Is it about the contrast between the shadow and the light? Or is it we’re going to measure how many photons are in that space?

Wes: [Laughs] I feel like it’s kind of trying to riff on the idea that the most noble of paladin could become the worst blackguard, that kind of shift.

Oren: It’s very poetic.

Chris: Or, a powerful magical girl becomes a powerful witch.

Oren: It’s like “It’s dark as just before dawn”, which is not true, but sounds cool.

All: [Laughs]

Wes: It sounds cool. So anyway, we are either talking about shadow realms today or the duality of humanity. [Laughs]

Oren: We got to talk about the land of Mordor then, because it’s literally where the shadows lie.

Wes: I mean, for Adar so loved his Uruk that he gave up the sun by blowing up a mountain.

Oren: Everyone knows that if a volcano erupts and spews a lot of ash and other particles into the air, it’ll all just kind of stay in one place.

Chris: It’ll stay and block out the sun, but only over that one country.

Oren: It’s not going to ever move. It won’t flow or move with the atmospheric currents. That’s how air works, okay? Just believe us. 

Wes: There was such opportunity there for that to blow up and then basically send Middle-earth into a mini ice age. That happened in Europe in the 18th century. We got great art out of that, so maybe that could have happened.

Chris: Right, but Mordor’s not supposed to be as big as Europe. That was brief. How long has Mordor had this volcano problem?

Oren: I don’t remember the Lord of the Rings timeline. I think this is several thousand years before the movies?

Chris: Some very stubborn clouds. [Laughs]

Wes: Maybe the water continues to feed into the volcano, which continues to create more volcano cloud ash. I don’t know, it doesn’t make sense.

Oren: One of the things that The Rings of Power did that I was sort of surprised, kind of impressed by, but also just like, “Eh”, was that it decided to stick with the idea that before the Lord of the Rings books started, the orcs couldn’t travel in sunlight. That’s supposed to be a new development in The Lord of the Rings, which is a weird thing because it makes it really hard for orcs to be threatening in any other context, which is why the Hobbit movies just forgot about it. But Rings of Power felt constrained by that, and as a result, it has this extremely weird storyline trying to make the orcs threatening despite the fact that they can’t go outside during the day. They’re basically like vampires, except that they aren’t superpowered at night. They’re just regular people at night.

Wes: [Laughs]

Chris: Well, they’re ground vampires because they’re experts at tunneling.

Oren: Yes, they can tunnel really well.

Chris: It’s like tremors.

All: [Laughs]

Wes: But orcs, yeah.

Oren: Sometimes they did normal tunneling where they just had to dig for a long time, but then sometimes they were doing cartoon mole tunneling where they would just kind of tunnel under your house, grab someone, and leave. [Laughs]

Chris: Speaking of which, we should not forget Moria. Moria is a shadow realm, right? It’s inside a mountain and it’s super dark.

Wes:I think actually something just to quickly get out of the way that I do remember from a religion class I took in college is that there’s a storytelling tradition that in the class they call it a katabasis, which I believe just means a descent, like a going down, and it starts with the “Epic of Gilgamesh” and all the way up to present day. Basically, it’s any time your hero goes into another type of place and faces some type of trial. And so, Moria is a great example of actually stepping into a shadow realm. Sometimes quite literally people go to hell [Laughs], which I think is the most literal interpretation, but stepping into a wardrobe can offer challenges and any kind of place where you’ve just stepped out of one reality into another. Even if it’s not a completely opposite reality, it is distinct in tone and threat, and as a result of that you come out changed. That’s another important part of what a katabasis is, is as a result of that trial you are different now. And they lose Gandalf in Moria. That certainly alters the composition of the Fellowship.

Oren: Yeah, I mean until the next movie, but fair enough, yeah. 

Wes: Well, yeah, oh yeah. 

All: [Laughs]

Wes: It fundamentally changes Gandalf because then suddenly he’s reborn and better. 

Oren: It puts them on the path to the Fellowship breaking up, because if Gandalf had still been with them on the other side, all of that nonsense with Boromir probably wouldn’t have gone down. 

Wes: He would have just whacked him and said, “Sit down!”

Oren: A lot of the places that we’re thinking of that we would consider shadow realms, some of them are actual separate dimensions or other worlds that you can’t just walk through, you need some kind of magic to get there, like Hades, or the Fade from Dragon Age, or parts of the Never Never in Dresden Files. But, sometimes, they’re just really spooky parts of the world, like Mordor, or Annuvin from Prydain, or the cave in Empire Strikes Back. Yoda just lives next to an evil cave for some reason. 

All: [Laughs]

Wes: But the shadow part definitely comes from, if you’re sitting in shadow, it’s darker, but I don’t believe that a lack of light is really the big deal. It’s more about a lack of warmth, physical and or metaphorical. The lack of comfort in this space is actually a big part of why there’s threat here. 

Chris: So if you go into Moria and you get down to where there’s some geothermal heat, we are no longer in the shadow realm.

Wes: Or you’re like, oh man, this is great. Wait, why is this here? And then of course there’s fire demons. 

Oren: Regardless of whether we mean literal shadows or not, it’s a place where the environment is hostile in some way. It’s not like a normal place where a threat has wandered into. The Shire didn’t suddenly become a shadow realm because the Nazgul were there. Mordor is different than a place where orcs happen to live. It’s supposed to be corrupted in some way. It’s sometimes kind of vague on how exactly, but it’s supposed to be. 

Chris: So for instance, the Abyss in Made in Abyss. Made in Abyss is an anime and the premise is that there’s this huge crevice, this vertical shaft going down and it’s very dangerous just because of the wildlife. It has just tons of things that will eat you down there. And it has different levels that each have different creatures. And people get sick if they travel back up again, and there’s a certain point of no return where even people who venture in there to get relics because there’s some cool technology relics in there that they can retrieve, if they get past a certain point, they can never come back again because they will die of this sickness that comes with coming up. And the main character has a compulsion to go down, which is also a common thing. It’s that people feel compelled to travel down this abyss. It’s an interesting concept. I like it, but it’s very dangerous and it’s presented that way and presented that if you are a beginner, you need to stick up to the higher levels or else you will probably die. But it’s just wild. It’s just a very wild place similar to Area X, for instance.

Wes: I couldn’t help but think of The Abyss, the movie that we talked about in our underwater podcast, which is also great. I was like, oh, if they go down too far, they can’t come up because they get the bends and their blood boils and they die.

Chris: Right. Yeah, it’s similar.

Wes: That’s a cool premise. I like that a lot. Oren said a key-word that I think is often associated with shadow realms is this idea of corruption. And to what extent do you feel like that is maybe an essential component of Mordor, Annuvin, or any kind of shadow realm we might look at?

Oren: There’s differences in thematics and what kind of imagery they’re conjuring. Like The Abyss, for example, there’s really nothing to indicate there’s any kind of corruption there in the show Made in Abyss. It’s just that it’s weirder and weirder the farther down you go. And so that’s dangerous because these are strange unknown wilds that humanity was not meant to tread in sort of place. Whereas in something like Mordor or the Shadowlands from Legend of the Five Rings or Annuvin from Prydain, the idea is that this was once a normal place that has been all messed up and it has been changed in a bad way. And that’s a different kind of threat, I would say. Whereas in Made in Abyss, in that sort of thing, it’s like this place is terrifying, but it can also be awe-inspiring and beautiful and there can be a feeling of, yeah, if this place wasn’t trying to kill us, it’d be really cool. Whereas you’re probably not thinking that about Mordor.

Wes: Mostly, in Mordor, you’re wondering, “What do all these orcs eat?”

Oren: Yeah, I do have questions about that. Questions about orcish agriculture.

Wes: Yeah, probably like ash yams or something like that. [Laughs]

Oren: I’m going to need a 20-page paper on this. Have it on my desk by Monday.

Wes: You brought up Annuvin a few times, obviously I love Chronicles of Prydain, but I do think that it’s a good example of also what they did with the movie Hercules. Annuvin, in Welsh mythology, is basically the other world where gods and spirits dwell, where Arawn is just kind of managing it. Same thing with Hades in Greek mythology, just has a job. But both Chronicles of Prydain in the books and the movie Hercules are like, “You know what, just because this person supervises the dead, they need to be the villain. They need to take them away from their desk job and make them the bad guys. Because it’s the only way that this works, because death is bad.”

Oren: My first shock upon rereading Prydain recently was I’d forgotten how Welsh it is, and then my other shock was that this is very different from the mythology that it’s based on. I was like, alright, I have to remember not to assume I know things about Welsh mythology because I read the Chronicles of Prydain

Chris and Wes: [Laughs] 

Oren: The funniest thing about Annuvin in those books is that they say it’s the land of the dead, but it’s absolutely not. Dead people don’t go there when they die in any capacity.

Chris: All of the dead are like cauldron-born who were reanimated. 

Oren: Yeah, I think the only way it’s the realm of the dead is that Arawn has a bunch of zombie soldiers. Not really what it sounded like they meant at first. I think Lloyd Alexander just wrote that in the first book because it sounded cool and, as the books went forward, realized that would be kind of weird if we went there and there were ghosts. That would kind of be a thing we’d have to deal with.

Chris: Especially if all magic is supposed to leave at the end. 

Oren: Yeah, well, well, well.

All: {Laughs]

Wes: Also weird if the dethroned Achren somehow is just living and seeking revenge on another person. Which is also odd.

Oren: Achren is funny because for all of the other villains that they fight, they all die. Usually some kind of appropriately poetic death. But Achren gets to be redeemed and then she has a heroic sacrifice instead. And it’s like, “Hmm, I wonder what’s different about Achren compared to all of your other bad guys. I wonder, could it be something that starts with a ‘G’ and ends with ‘ender?’ Could it be something about that?”

Chris and Wes: [Laughs]

Oren: Could it be that maybe you had a little bit of quote benevolent unquote sexism going on here? Who knows? We’ll never know except the answer is yes.

Wes: I think he was like doing a self insert with Gwydion and had a thing for Achren.

Oren: That’s not wrong. Gwydion is definitely his favorite character. My favorite is in book three when Taran is like, “Hey Gwydion, we should totally capture that spy before he does anything.” And Gwydion’s like, “No, we need to wait and see what he’s up to.” And then later the spy kidnaps Eilonwy and then Gwydion’s like, “Well, he moved too quickly! It’s too bad. No one could have seen this coming!”

All: [Laughs]

Oren: And it’s like, come on Gwydion.

Wes: Come on. Oh, man, that’s great. Those books are awesome. 

Oren: Yeah, they’re fun. I enjoyed rereading them quite a bit. 

Wes: Another weird actual land of the dead was in His Dark Materials. It’s literally called The Land of The Dead because why be creative?

Chris: Is this in The Amber Spyglass?

Wes: Yes, it’s in The Amber Spyglass.

Chris: There’s a lot of things in The Amber Spyglass.

Wes: There’s a lot of things in The Amber Spyglass. But so very straightforward, there;s a ferryman that they have to pay to cross the river to get into this place. Okay. And then they leave their daemons behind, which as a result of this adventure, they get the power upgrade where their daemons can go farther away from them like the witches. I don’t know, whatever. But I think it’s funny that I remember reading this book and I just imagined all these dead souls are just in a very large room and in this room are these harpies casting vicious mockery constantly.

All: [Laughs]

Wes: And they’re just standing there taking it until Will uses the subtle knife to trick the harpies into telling them all to leave. This is like, this is the most boring land of the dead I think I’ve ever read. 

Oren: Look, he used all of his creativity for the motorcycle elephant aliens.

All: [Laughs]

Oren: There wasn’t any left for the land of the dead. Honestly, that’s actually pretty par for the course for the way that the supernatural is portrayed in that book because theoretically one of the big conflicts in both that one and the previous book is Azrael’s fight against heaven. But it barely portrays that and when we do occasionally see the armies of heaven, they’re all kind of drab and uninteresting. It felt like Pullman just couldn’t bring himself to describe the afterlife or heaven in a way that might make it sound kind of cool. Because the message of that book is that we shouldn’t have an afterlife, souls should just be annihilated when they die. That’s the solution they come up with. And it’s like, “Yeah, okay, sure, Pullman.”

Chris: Sure. Yeah.

Wes: That reminds me of when the Harry Potter satanic panic was happening and somebody interviewed Pullman and he’s like, “I don’t get what the fuss is about. My books are about literally killing God and no one seems to care!”

Chris: He’s a little put off by this. Yeah. 

Oren: I was really trying really hard to make Christians so mad. They did not take the bait. They just didn’t care.

Chris: I had somebody ask me in the comments of one of our articles, “Why do you think that this is about Christianity?” And I’m like, did you not notice the Adam and Eve parts of it? [Laughs] So I think to a lot of people it’s so pervasive. They look at little differences that it’s not Christianity anymore. It’s like, well, if you think other sects of Christianity are not Christianity, I can see why you thought that.

Oren: It’s like, yeah, see the big church, which is clearly Catholicism, has some slightly different theological and liturgical practices to the real Catholic church. Therefore, it’s not actually Catholicism. And it’s like, I mean, if that’s what you need to say to read the books and enjoy them, then I guess, sure.

Chris: So does the Bad Place then qualify as a shadow realm?

Oren: I mean, probably. Do we ever actually go to the Bad Place in The Good Place? I forget.

Chris: I mean, it is technically the Bad Place. Spoilers. But I think we go and see a workplace as part of the official traditional bad place.

Wes: We see the workplace and they spend time in a museum of like really low evils or something because Michael thinks that’s the safest place for them. And so it’s a museum depicting people like the first waiter to say sarcastically, “Oh, I guess you must have hated that” when somebody finished their meal. It’s just like annoying evils. But they go there and they attend that party with Bad Place employees and stuff. 

Chris: We don’t see them torture people.

Wes: We never see that. No. 

Chris: We don’t see like fire and brimstone.

Oren: Yeah, we never go to the normal torture part of the bad place. We’re always in the “What if we made them slightly psychologically distressed?” experiment of Michael’s, which is in retrospect probably kind of weird that he got that approved. But, you know, whatever. I’ll take it. 

Wes: Sean was just so bored. Yeah, that’s a good one. And then maybe more story related is like, why would you include a shadow type realm? I think that there’s probably plenty of reasons. But Mordor is obviously very representative, like, okay, this is where we have to go to solve the thing. Right? Like this ring has to go there and that place is shadow and represents the ultimate evil threat. So go there, drop off the key thing and then lift it out by god eagles.

Oren: Thanks, eagles!

Wes: Thank you!

Chris: To be honest, that sounds a little bit like having evil races, having an evil place. Now, sounds like shadow realms are a little bit broader than that. You can have a very dangerous place that’s not evil. I suppose you could have a place that’s just very polluted, has lots of toxic chemicals if you wanted to have an environmental message. But the whole traditional, “This place is shadowy, therefore it is evil. And then the evil race comes from there.” It’s like, eh, I don’t see much value in that anymore.

Wes: No, there’s not.

Oren: A lot of the ones we’re thinking of are definitely tied to the concept of an evil race or other not good concepts. The whole concept of a corrupted place, that can be a parallel for a lot of different things. In the most famous ones, it’s not because we all know what Tolkien was going for. But in general, whether or not we consider corruption to be a requirement to be a shadow realm or not, the main purposes of a shadow realm are that it provides novelty and tension at the same time. It’s tension because it’s dangerous and spooky, whether that’s the monsters or just the dangerous environments from Made in Abyss. Or whether it’s the fact that if you stay in the Shadowlands in Legend of the Five Rings too long, you become a demon. That’s spooky, but it’s kind of cool. And that’s why the one in His Dark Materials is so uninteresting. It’s because it has no novelty. It’s just like, yeah, it’s a room where all the ghosts hang out. Done.

Wes: Those are all really good points because I think that hits why season one of Stranger Things was very well done. Because that shadow realm is Hawkins, but not Hawkins. And that was great before they decided to ruin it all by making it all just some dude.

Oren: Thanks, Vecna. [Laughs]

Wes: Thanks, Vecna. But in that first season, it’s great because why deal with the shadow realm? Oh, well, because it’s hunting us. Sure, there’s the Demogorgon, but it’s more like the place is hungry. They must have been inspired by Shadowfell from Dungeons & Dragons in general for that kind of thing. But I thought that was a really cool play on the environment itself is the antagonistic force coming for you and taking a loved one in that case.

Oren: Back then, before this idea that Vecna just created it for some reason, the implication was that this was like another Hawkins that had been taken over. The bad guys won here and this is what it looks like when they win. So that was real spooky and added a lot of tension. Not so much anymore, but season one was good back in the good old innocent days of season one.

All: [Laughs]

Wes: One thing that I thought was interesting that was pointed out, but they never did anything with it, was every time they go into the Upside Down, it has those little floating flakes of I don’t know what. But they showed government people going in with hazmat suits, but there’s apparently no lingering effects, I guess.

Oren: No, it’s fine.

Wes: Don’t worry about it. It’s fine. You can just breathe that. It’s all good. They’re going to cough and be like, “Oh no!”, but it doesn’t matter, I guess.

Oren: In season two, it was like, well, Will’s all messed up. So maybe it was from breathing all that stuff. But no, apparently it was because the Mind Flayer took a special interest in him. Everyone else can just be there for whatever and they’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.

Wes: I did love that cliffhanger at the end of season one where Will vomits up the slug in the bathroom and then for that moment is just ported there and then ports back. I thought that was pretty cool.

Oren: That was pretty cool. Didn’t really go anywhere, but it was cool.

Chris: Yeah, it would have been nicer if they had actually developed that. But I think that is perhaps some of the appeal. If your shadow realm is an adjacent or like a mirror type of plane of existence, then it’s kind of always there and that can tighten threats, certainly, depending on how you play it.

Chris: Like if it’s the ghost realm that’s overlaid over our own, for instance.

Wes: Yeah, exactly. I think there’s a lot of cool opportunities there.

Oren: Everyone loves the ghost world.

Chris: Which reminds me of Beetlejuice.

Wes: Oh, yes. So glad you brought that up.

Chris: It’s like they die and then suddenly they leave their house and it’s like sand and worms. That’s what happens if they try to leave their house and we’ve got the whole dead person bureaucracy that they have.

Oren: Oh, great. Now I have to live in Dune.

Wes: The ultimate shadow realm.

Oren: The ultimate shadow realm. Everyone telling me that Dune‘s a subversion. I’m like, no, it’s not a subversion and they won’t stop telling me it’s a subversion.

Wes: This is Oren’s true bad place.

Chris: And then they pull out The Red Book whenever you talk about Lord of the Rings.

Oren: On, no. Ah, The Red Book! It’s like “You seem like someone who’s only read The Red Book.” I’m like, oh, no, I’m already dead inside now that you’ve said that.

All: [Laughs]

Oren: One more thing I wanted to mention about shadow realms that they’re useful for, especially if they’re more fantasy oriented shadow realms. Like this probably wouldn’t work well with the Upside Down. But if they’re more fantasy oriented, then you can use them as a way to do character development. Popular options include showing the darkness within. This is what the cave is for in Star Wars. But also temptation arcs. The idea being that this place is negative in some way and so it’s drawing out your negative aspects. That can be good for character development in addition to some novelty and tension.

Chris: Your shadow realm could be a nightmare where they see all their fears.

Oren: I had fun with the Curse of Strahd game because basically Barovia is one of those. It’s called a domain of dread apparently. Although the version that I ran through was very different than the one that’s in the base book because my GM changed it a lot. But it had a similar vibe that was like, this land’s all messed up because it’s ruled over by a super messed up vampire who did some kind of creepy weird ritual to make herself immortal. Strahd was a she in my version.

Wes: Barovia is a good example because yes, it is an isolated area ruled by a not benevolent monarch. There’s a lot of horrible, but it’s not ubiquitous. There are still some people trying to do good things there and I think that helps make it more interesting. It’s not all just undead all the time.

Oren: Right, it’s a place where people are supposed to have to be able to live. It’s not like the Shadow Lands where you only go in there for a limited amount of time and then you either die or you come back out. It has to scale things back a little bit because you need to be able to have believable villages that still exist. 

Chris:Or like Mordor where the orcs eat rocks, I guess, that are on the menu.

All: [Laughs]

Wes: They’re on the menu. 

Chris: I’m referring to the line, “Meats back on the menu, boys.” 

Wes: That was a great pull, Chris. I loved that.

Chris: It’s anachronistic but it is a pretty good line. I wonder if the writers debated that behind the scenes.

Wes: I hope so. I hope it was fraught debate and they won in the end and we all won in the end. Oren was mentioning character development and things like that. I think that’s something kind of cool there if you wanted to work like a corrupting influence with the… What was the name of the abyss show you mentioned, Chris? 

Chris: Made in Abyss.

Wes: Made in Abyss, right? Okay, yes. They go down too far and they can’t come back up. It might as well be the fact that the shadow realm has in fact captured their soul and they’re trapped there forever. So I think that there still might be some kind of connection there with the place having a certain level of threat over your characters and being able to draw them in and maybe never let them go. So, whether it’s real or fantasy, there’s a lot of cool opportunities to play with cool monsters or maybe there’s different types of powers or a corrupting influence, but make it fun and spooky.

Oren: Well with that, I think we’re going to go ahead and call this episode to a close.

Chris: If you enjoyed this trip to the shadow realm, please support us on Patreon. That does make sense somehow. There’s logic there, I swear. Just go to

Oren: And before we go, I want to thank a few of our existing patrons. First there’s Callie Macleod. Then we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory at Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at We’ll talk to you next week.

[Closing Music]

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

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